Month: January 2011

Musings About the Term “First Mother”

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Regarding the term “first mother”:  I have seen it used increasingly over the past 10 years or so, and as a former linguistics major, I am fascinated with the etymology and semantics of words.  I do not automatically use the term “first mother” myself, but I do belong to a group called the First Mothers Action Group, which is celebrating its 10th birthday as of today.

I admit, I sit on the fence regarding the term “first mother.”  I am not certain whether I like it or not, or whether I feel it is insulting or not insulting.  It is ambiguous, and a little informal poll that I took reflected this ambiguity.

It was only 11 years ago that I first went online to look specifically at adoption-related topics, as opposed to the other online research, website design, and information exchange I had previously engaged in.   What plunged me into “internet adopto-land” was the new reunion with my eldest son.   At first,  I thought that the semantics of the term “first mother”  were that it without ambiguity meant someone who was still a mother, because it has never occurred to me that there was anyone who would ever define me as not being a mother!  Of course I was still one of his mothers, I thought to myself!  That was my reality.

Then I learned about the official definitions of adoption-related words as part of the adoption industry’s “Positive Adoption Language” (or “Respectful Adoption Language”) terminology set.  This is the terminology set which defines the woman who adopts as being the ONLY mother, the sole mother, and hence the woman who has surrendered (PAL term = “birth mother”) is not a mother at all, but only breeding stock:

“Those who raise and nurture a child are his parents: his mother, father ….” (Johnston, 2004)

In her 1979 article that laid out the basis of “Positive Adoption Language,” Marietta Spencer wrote  “Choosing emotionally-correct words is especially important in adoption transactions.”   She follows this with many examples in the article reinforcing the notion of the sole parenthood of adoptive parents after the adoption of a child, implying that no emotional or familial connection remains between members of the pre-existing family.

PAL/RAL thus reduces us to being only important for the biological/uterine purpose of having given birth, and that we are nothing to our children past this point as we are now former mothers and fathers.  And PAL/RAL also officially defines the term “first mother” as only appropriate for women who have lost older children to the child protection system:

“‘First mother (or father):’ This term is accurate only if the birth-giving mother or biological father did some parenting during the postnatal period.  If they never functioned as parents, their contribution was limited to the pre-natal and birth-giving process.  Only in the case of an older child who experienced some parenting from his birth parents is it correct to speak of a ‘first mother’ or “‘first father.'” (Spencer, 1979, p. 456)

Then came a discussion with an adoptive father who was adamant that the term “first mother” was paralleled by “first wife/second wife,” with an adoption being akin to a divorce.  That it indicates sequential motherhood, and being a “first wife” means you are no longer the man’s wife. This made sense to me, that this definition would be the one that many people assumed at face value.  But I wanted to find out how prevalent this meaning was.

So, out of curiosity, to find out the range of opinions, two years ago I asked a question on the Yahoo Answers “Adoption” board  to find out what people thought.  Interesting selection of answers, indicating that some people considered it to sequential, and some, concurrent.  Results seemed to be split about 50-50.

This last month, I took it one step further and wondered “what is the general breakdown of what the general population considers ‘first mother’ to mean?”   I posted a very unscientific poll in a Cafemom forum (“Newcomers Club”) where I took a guess that there might be a relatively proportional representation of the general population regarding how adoption may or may not have affected their lives.  I did not want answers solely from those directly affected (adoptees, natural mothers, “baby brokers,” or people who had adopted or were intending to adopt).  But I did want to get opinions from mothers or those interested in the topic of motherhood.

This was my question:

The term “first mother” has entered adoption-related discourse, and I am sitting on the fence on this one, because I am not certain about what it implies to the “general public.”The term “birth mother” was coined about 40 yrs ago by the adoption industry in order to define a mother who has lost/placed/surrendered a child to adoption as being a non-mother, a mother whose motherhood ended at birth.  The term “natural mother” means a woman who has surrendered a child to adoption but is still a mother, a mother by the laws of Nature and still having that instinctive love/bond with her child.   But what about the term “first mother”?  What does it imply to you?1 – Does it imply concurrent motherhood, like in “first child and second child,” that both the “first mother” and the adoptive mothers are both mothers at the same time to the child? 2 – Or does it imply sequential motherhood, as in “first wife and second wife,” that the first mother of the child is no longer that child’s mother?Whether or not you think one way or the other, please answer this poll, focusing on just what the term “first mother” means to you.

There have been 123 responses (updated on May 16, 2012), and here are the results:

Concurrent. The term “first mother” implies that the woman is STILL a mother of the child who was adopted 33%
Sequential. The term “first mother” implies that the woman is NOT a mother of the child who was adopted 36%
I am not sure. 30%

Looking at the results over the first 13 days in which they gradually came in, there was little variance, only about 5% trending one way or the other.   The comments are also interesting to read.

So, as you can see, the results are pretty divided as to the semantics of the word, but more people consider it to mean “former mother” than “currently a mother to her lost child.”   Of course, this survey is really just an unimportant bit of fluff, and I don’t think it really has much practical purpose in “the real world.”  It was only done out of curiosity.

But, what do you think?  Personally, this to me gives me reason to continue to describe myself using the term “natural mother.”    There is no official legal body of course dictating how words are defined, and even if a person begins using the term “natural mother,” it does not mean that they really do consider us to be mothers.  But to me, at least, there is no ambiguity in this term.

I am a mother to my lost son, and I have not ceased being his mother.   I was not replaced.   I did not stop loving him and we did not stop being related to each other as family. And, maybe I am wrong, but I want my motherhood to be recognized in any terms that are applied to me.   I find it insulting to be relegated to the status of being nothing more than a “breeder.”   I am still of two minds about the term “first mother.”   Overall, I think I find it a bit less offensive than the term “birth mother”  — someone using it might be making an effort to respect me as being a mother — but then again, they might not.   I prefer clarity to ambiguity,  so “natural mother” is my preference.


Johnston, P. I. (2004).  “Speaking Positively: Using Respectful Adoption Language.”  Indianapolis, IN:  Perspectives Press.

Spencer, Marietta (1979). “The Terminology of Adoption,” in Child Welfare, 58(7), pp. 451-459.